Russia is currently home to a festival of football, where talent from all over the globe is being showcased on the biggest ever stage. With 32 teams fighting for glory, the World Cup is well and truly back. Germany are no doubt the favourites after their triumph four years ago, but hot on their heels are previous winners Spain, France, Argentina and Brazil. However, any team has the capability of turning into a dark horse. Will one of the typical powerhouses prevail? Or will someone unexpected stun the world? It is all to play for, and many countries are heavily relying on their stars to shine when it matters most. Here are 10 players who are unquestionably ever-present for their teams this summer.
10 HARRY KANE
PREMIER LEAGUE golden boot winner in 2015-16 and 2016-17, the Tottenham striker will be captaining England in Russia. With 108 goals in 150 games for the London club and four consecutive appearances in the PFA Team of the Year, he will be much fancied to be the spearhead of England’s attack. To date, he has 12 goals in 23 international appearances, including goals against current world champions Germany and former world champions France. Could the 24-year-old lead his country to only their second ever major international trophy? Should any success be gained, a likely source will be Kane.
9 ROMELU LUKAKU
BEING BELGIUM’S highest international scorer with 33 goals, it is difficult to believe that the Manchester United striker is only 25 years old. Being this prolific already, it is frightening for opponents to imagine his potential as he continues to improve. He became the fifth youngest player to reach 100 Premier League goals in March 2018, netting in United’s 2-0 win over Swansea City. One goal of note was in Salvador in 2014, where Lukaku doubled Belgium’s lead in their 2-1 round of 16 World Cup victory over the United States. If Lukaku receives the service he thrives upon, then there is no doubt that Belgium can better their quarter-final finish from four years ago.
8 SON HEUNG-MIN
WITH SILVER and bronze medals in the AFC Asian Cup, the South Korea forward is no stranger to knockout football. He has been chosen as AFC International Footballer of the Year on two occasions, and with his current club Tottenham Hotspur he has picked up two Premier League Player of the Month awards. In addition, he scored seven times in qualification for Russia 2018, as well as netting in the 2014 World Cup against Algeria. Despite being the lowest-ranked team in what is seen by many as the group of death, the quality is definitely there for the Asian nation to excel, with Son being a prime example.
7 PHILIPPE COUTINHO
LA LIGA and the Copa del Rey could just be the start of a glittering career for the Brazil attacking midfielder. The Barcelona player, who scored 10 goals in 22 appearances during his superb start to life at the Spanish giants, won the U-20 World Cup in 2011. For the internationals following Brazil’s disastrous end to the 2014 tournament, Coutinho was recalled to the squad. Since then, he has played a significant part in Brazil’s revival, scoring a hat-trick in the Copa América Centenario and notching four goals in Russia 2018 qualification. Known for his vision, pace and agility, he could well be the catalyst to Brazil securing their sixth World Cup title.
6 JAVIER HERNÁNDEZ
WITH 49 goals in 100 international appearances, West Ham striker Hernández is Mexico’s all-time highest goalscorer. Within this tally are goals from two World Cups – in 2010 he netted against 1998 world champions France and then against twice winners Argentina, before netting in Mexico’s 3-1 group stage victory over Croatia four years later in Brazil. He has tasted glory with his country at continental level, with Mexico winning the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup. In this tournament, he won the Golden Boot Award and the Most Valuable Player Award. If Mexico are to finally get past the round of 16, then they will be hoping that Hernández shines once again.
5 ROBERT LEWANDOWSKI
BAYERN MUNICH striker and Poland captain Lewandowski always seems to find a way to leave the world gaping in awe. Whether scoring five times in nine minutes against top-league opposition or netting the most goals in major tournament qualification, Lewandowski is always breaking records. He has hit the back of the net 151 times in 195 games for the German champions, and 52 times for his country in 93 internationals. It’s no wonder that he has won the Polish Footballer of the Year award for the past seven years. With Russia 2018 being Poland’s first World Cup since 2006, the opportunity for Lewandowski to take his scoring exploits to a new level has definitely presented itself.
4 JAMES RODRÍGUEZ
RIO DE Janeiro, 2014, Colombia v Uruguay, World Cup round of 16. With anything of significance yet to occur, James Rodríguez takes the ball on his chest and hammers an unstoppable volley past a stunned Fernando Muslera in the Uruguay goal. Having already scored three goals in the group stage, this moment is what turned a good World Cup into a blistering World Cup for the midfielder. He then notched the second goal to wrap up a 2-0 win, which took Colombia to the quarter-finals, a stage which they had never reached before. After a brave fight against the World Cup hosts Brazil, Colombia were defeated 2-1 in the last eight, with Rodríguez scoring his team’s consolation. This goal made him one of only nine players to score in every match of their team’s campaign in a World Cup tournament, the last player to achieve this feat being Teófilo Cubillas for Peru back in 1970. Not only did he win the 2014 World Cup Golden Boot for scoring 6 times in 5 games, but he also received the FIFA Puskás Award for his sensational goal against Uruguay. Since then, he has made his way into a La Liga team of the season, a UEFA Champions League squad of the season and a UEFA team of the year. With 6 goals in qualification for Russia 2018, things are looking promising for Rodríguez, who will no doubt be out to dazzle the world once again.
3 MOHAMED SALAH
THERE CAN not be many football fans who haven’t been talking about Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah in the 2017-18 season. His technical skills, pace and trickery have blown away not only Premier League opposition, but also clubs from around Europe. An extraordinary golden-boot-winning season began at Vicarage Road. Liverpool opened their campaign at Watford, with Salah, the first Egyptian to play for the Merseyside club, making his debut. He made his mark in the best way possible, scoring to put his team 3-2 up, before Watford equalised late on. Twelve days later, his second goal came in a 4-2 UEFA Champions League play-off victory against Hoffenheim. The former Roma and Chelsea player then assisted and scored in a 4-0 thrashing of FA Cup holders Arsenal. These matches were just the start of something special, with Salah finishing the Premier League season’s top scorer with 32, the record for a 38-game season. This record was one of several to be broken by the Egyptian maestro. His tally with Egypt is impressive too, with 33 goals in 57 games. His best achievement with his country was reaching the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations final, where the Pharaohs narrowly missed out on continental glory after a 2-1 loss to Cameroon. Salah scored twice in Egypt’s impressive run and was named in the team of the tournament. Following his incredible club form, millions of Egyptians will be hoping to see Salah silence the home fans in Russia with another extravaganza of attacking brilliance.
2 LIONEL MESSI
QUITE TRULY a footballing superstar. With nine La Liga titles, six Copa del Rey titles, four UEFA Champions League titles, a record five European Golden Shoes for being Europe’s highest domestic league scorer and a record-tying five Ballon d’Or titles, the Argentina forward has cemented his place in history as one of football’s most famous faces. Despite his successes footballing life since the 2014 World Cup on the international scene has not been so easy. After a disappointing 1-0 loss in the final against Germany in Brazil, Argentina were handed two chances to win continental silverware, with Copa América and the Copa América Centenario. In both tournaments, Messi reached the final with Argentina and both finals ended 0-0 against Chile. Sadly for the legend, Argentina were pipped on penalties both times, with Messi missing his spot kick in 2016. This meant three consecutive international final defeats for the forward, who then retired from international duty after his critical miss in the 2016 final. Thankfully for millions of Argentinians, Messi reversed his decision and chose to play again for his country in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers. However, a defeat in Ecuador in their final game meant missing out on their first World Cup since 1970. Will 2018 be the year that Messi finally lifts the World Cup with Argentina? With his awe-inspiring performances at the last World Cup and ability to at times single-handedly carry his country, it most definitely seems that the La Liga’s highest goalscorer will make his mark once again.
1 CRISTIANO RONALDO
WINNING ONE trophy is seen as a challenge for a lot of players, but winning 26 seems out of the question for most. Not for Cristiano Ronaldo, for lifting silverware has become second nature to the forward. The Portugal and Real Madrid player holds records in many areas of the beautiful game including joint highest UEFA European Championship scorer and highest UEFA Champions League scorer, as well as having the most assists in both competitions. He has scored over 650 goals for club and country, a feat that only five other people have accomplished in history.
Although Real Madrid had a poor La Liga title challenge in 2017-18, they once again found themselves champions of European club football, with Ronaldo attaining his fifth Champions League title. This makes him the only player to have won the competition five times. Even more impressive is the fact that he managed to score in every group stage match, both round of 16 matches and both quarter-final matches. This shows that even when the Spanish club are not at their best, such as during the 3-1 group stage defeat to Tottenham Hotspur, Ronaldo still finds a way to hit the back of the net.
Ronaldo first burst onto the international scene as a 19-year-old at UEFA Euro 2004, when the tournament was held in his country, Portugal. He made an instant impact, scoring in Portugal’s opening game, a 2-1 defeat to soon-to-be finalists Greece. He went on to play a key role for the host nation, assisting two goals and scoring again in the semi-final. However, he suffered heartbreak in the final against the Balkan country, with he being one of the many Portuguese players to burst into tears after an excruciating 1-0 defeat.
Despite the disappointment of losing the final, Ronaldo definitely made himself known in the tournament, and from there, it got better and better. One can see this through this extraordinary feat: Ronaldo is the only player in the world to score in seven consecutive major international championships, after goals in the 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016 European Championships and goals in the 2006, 2010 and 2014 World Cups. The Portugal captain’s finest international moment was Euro 2016 glory with Portugal, overcoming hosts France 1-0 to lift the trophy for the first time in the country’s history. It was so nearly group stage disappointment for Portugal, with Ronaldo’s two goals against Hungary in the final group phase game being the difference between exiting the tournament or progressing. In a game which Portugal trailed three times, the legendary icon equalised twice in a wild 3-3 draw to spare a second consecutive group stage exit for the Iberian nation.
With Russia 2018 on the horizon, Ronaldo will be looking to score his first ever goal against his country’s Iberian neighbours Spain in their mouthwatering Group B opener in Sochi. It is also worth remembering that Portugal will also face Iran in this year’s World Cup, as Ronaldo scored in a 2-0 Portuguese victory when the two teams met in the group stage in 2006. Could Ronaldo guide his country to a world title after their European triumph? Even if Portugal are not outright favourites, anything is possible with a player such as Cristiano Ronaldo in your team.
> Bradley Montgomery